Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Teaching Technology Studies constructively

Monica Leggett
Applied Science

Tony Fetherston
Academic Programmes
Edith Cowan University

Units within the Technology Studies degree programme at Edith Cowan University involve students with a large range of prior knowledge. A third year unit "Communications Technology" has been restructured, within a constructivist framework, to accommodate the varying requirements of students. This paper describes the preliminary findings of this new approach.

Background to the study

The Bachelor of Applied Science (Technology Studies) degree programme at Edith Cowan University requires students to take twelve units of technology studies in parallel with ten units of their supporting major. Students enter the degree programme with a range of prior science knowledge and experience both of which have widened further by the time students enter their third year.

The third year unit, Communications Technology, has several roles within the course. In addition to covering the content area associated with communications technology, it is the second of two units used to teach physics literacy through the vehicle of technology. It also draws on material in previous units to meet individual student needs.

The problem

Any current unit on communications technology faces the difficulty of dealing appropriately with the explosion in communications technology. In addition students have wide ranging prior knowledge of physics (from year nine science to third year university physics); diverse interests and a potential wide range of areas for application of their knowledge associated with this technology.

Faced with such diversity of background, interest and application, the lecturer is tempted to aim at the middle ground and accommodate the extremes in the best way possible. Practically this can result in compressing the material into a first year physics format. This was not acceptable as it:

The solution trialed in 1994

The solution trialed in 1994 used a model developed by Fetherstonhaugh (1993). Based on personal construct psychology (Kelly, 1955) and described by Fetherston (1994), this model uses theoretical propositions made explicit through five key learning operations shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

During the 'Appraise' phase both the teacher's and student's constructs are made explicit and then used as a basis for choice in order of subsequent content. Students then 'Choose and Assess', which places the responsibility for learning on the student and forces students to predict which of their construct would be most useful to the intended learning activity. Throughout 'The activity' phase there is an emphasis on constant comparisons; their ideas versus each others; their ideas versus texts. The learning process then moves to the 'Elaborate' phase where students apply and consolidate their new knowledge. Finally they 'occasionally Reappraise' and monitor the changes in their constructs.

Existing materials were easily adapted to this new approach. The lecture and lab/tutorial components were separated and the lectures were used to introduce students to the current use of new communications technologies. The structure of the lab/tutorials was designed to be sufficiently flexible to permit each student to start from their current knowledge (in line with the above approach) and build on this.

Students worked through modules in small groups using discussion within their groups in each of the phases (Appraise, Choose and Assess, The activity, Elaborate and Reappraise) as an essential part of the learning process. They were asked to use journals to record their learning progress. It was expected that the journal would act as a powerful learning tool by forcing students to verbalise the learning process and thereby assisting with appraisal of their learning. The 'Elaborate' phase encouraged students to address links to previous units and to address interests arising from the diversity of their supporting majors. It soon became obvious that the more thoughtful groups also saw the connections to the lecture programme. The lecturer was available as a resource for use by groups throughout the process.


Evaluation in this pilot project was restricted to qualitative data from students. The students' initial reaction, on being told about the way the lab/tutorial section of the unit would run, was one of stunned silence. The lecturer gave students an opportunity to talk among themselves and articulate some of their initial fears. When asked to describe how they felt at the start of the unit, students mentioned feelings of uncertainty, confusion and difficulty. Typical responses were:
'Difficult to understand what was required.'

'I found it a little daunting to begin with but eventually got the hang of it.'

'Confusing but gradually got used to it.'

'Almost lost at the start of semester.'

This is not surprising given how different this approach was to the rest of the units which they had studied. Similar initial reactions were observed by Fetherston when working with a group of year nine students (Fetherston 1993)

When asked to describe the changes which happened during the semester, the picture changed considerably with most students recording positive outcomes. Typical comments included:

'Have learned to view most things from different angles and perspectives and to learn in a more mature way.'

'Gained a greater independence. Taught myself some of the concepts that are related to physics.'

One group however continued to resist the change until the last few weeks of semester. One member documented this graphically:
'Perhaps the greatest lesson my group learnt was how reliant we had all become on direction by a lecturer or a lab assistant. We were given the option in this unit of pursuing whichever direction took our fancy as we had all had similar physics background. To be given freedom of this type was so unusual in our collective 50 years of scholastic experience (certainly since kindergarten) that we spent far more time looking for the trap and the usual hoops that you have to jump through, than in contemplating where we really wanted to go. In the end we conservatively plodded our way through the physics we already knew again , rather than grasp the golden ring of opportunity.'
This group had the best knowledge of physics but also a strong initial conviction that physics was about facts and not a subject for discussion, they were also cynical over the use of the journal. It appears that their epistemology regarding learning and the nature of science could well have inhibited change. This was in stark contrast to most of the students who made comments about the use of the journal like:
'I recommend the use of a journal as suggested in the unit outline. The concept of a journal vocalising the learning process can be successful if utilised correctly. However I must confess to finding it difficult at times to write down what I was thinking or feeling. It did not seem to be important if it did not involve facts. After practise the technique becomes a little easier and worthwhile even though it is time consuming.'
Despite the difficulty experienced by this one group, on balance the trial appears to have produced more real learning, interest and application than the alternative of giving a formal lecture course to a sea of faces, half of which were bored and the other half confused.

In most groups the amount of work done was considerable and commented on negatively by two students who had found the pressure of their responsibility to other members of the group onerous. The approach proved to be particularly empowering to the groups of students with the least physics background and this is an impressive and encouraging result. One of these students expressed this very clearly:

'The first day I walked into Communications Technology, I had little, to no physics knowledge......................This all meant that I didn't feel too good about having to do a unit, which had a heavy emphasis on physics. But I soon found out, through discussions and experiments, that physics is interesting, relevant and easy to learn, but that might only be in Communications Technology!!!'


Fetherstonhaugh, A. R. (1993). The Development, Implementation and Evaluation of a Constructivist Learning Approach Based on Personal Construct Psychology. Unpublished PhD thesis. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

Fetherston, A. R. (1994). The Implementation of a Constructivist Learning Approach. Submitted to International Journal Science Education.

Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs, Vols 1 and 2. New York: Norton.

Please cite as: Leggett, M. and Fetherston, A. R. (1995). Teaching Technology Studies constructively. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p157-160. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/leggett.html

[ TL Forum 1995 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/leggett.html
Last revision: 16 Apr 2002. Edith Cowan University
Previous URL 26 Feb 1997 to 15 Apr 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf95/legg157.html